Repentance: Is it Needed in the Christian’s Life?

Often times when the Christian thinks about doing righteous work, they shrink back in a sort of fear. When we think to ourselves, “On the one hand not doing righteous work makes it seem as if I am not Christian, because Christians do righteous things. On the other hand saying I need to do righteous works seems to add onto the gospel and diminish its message of a free gift.” These two things coexist.

Repentance is a theological doctrine that has been ignored far too much in the church. We ignore it because we feel it adds works to the Gospel. We feel uncomfortable telling people to repent. Today, a lot of churches are seeker sensitive and they know that preaching a Gospel with repentance can be detrimental to the growth and numeric sustainability of their church. As Christianity becomes a thing to do and not a life to live wrung out for the glory of God we cringe at the idea of telling people to repent. But why? John the Baptist and even Jesus himself said these things. “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 4:17).

To a degree I think our fear of preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” comes from a good heart. The thing is, the condition of our heart does not make the omission of repentance from the Gospel right. To not preach repentance is to not preach the full Gospel. I’ve often told this to people and have been accused of adding on works to the Gospel. But this claim is simply false and that has been made clear in Scripture.

First let’s deal with the verse I quoted earlier, Matthew 4:17. Jesus did not recommend repentance he commanded it. His command was to repent, why?Because the kingdom of God was on its way. In this sense, repentance was and still is a way in which the we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the kingdom.

In Mark 1:4, Mark tell’s us, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” At this we might stop and say, “Is not that a work to be done in order to receive salvation?” On the surface there seems to be a contradiction. Matthew Henry in his commentary on the book of Mark notes: “He preached repentance, in order to it; he told people that there must be a renovation of their hearts and a reformation of their lives, that they must forsake their sins and turn to God, and upon those terms and no other, their sins should be forgiven. Repentance for the remission of sins, was what the apostles were commissioned to preach to all nations,Lu. 24:27.” Secondly the ESV notes that “Repentance had to precede baptism, and thus baptism was not the means by which sins were forgiven but rather was a sign indicating that one had truly repented.”

In other words it was not the baptism that saved, rather the repentant heart. But isn’t having a repentant heart still a work? Doesn’t one perform an act or deed when repenting? If so then the Gospel is by work and not by faith this will be dealt with in a later article).

Repent in the Old and New Testament

Before we answer that and move on, let’s look at the word repent both in the Old and New Testament to get a better idea of what it actually means to repent. To do this I will be quoting extensively from the “Lexham Theological Wordbook“, since they speak to the issue much more clearly than I can.

In the Old Testament

“(šûb). vb. to turn, to return, change direction, to repent. The basic meaning of return or change in direction is used metaphorically to express repentance as a change in direction away from sinful actions toward obedience to God.

Most generally, šûb refers to changing course or direction, or returning from a journey or location (e.g., Gen 14:7; Prov 30:30). It can also refer to a change in action or decision (Judg 11:35). It can be used metaphorically to express changing one’s orientation to God—both positively (turning toward God) and negatively (turning away from God). The term is especially used in this sense in Jeremiah (Jer 3:12; 4:1; 8:5; 18:11). Turning away from God and his commandments is equivalent to apostasy (e.g., Num 14:43; 2 Chr 7:19), while turning back toward God means repenting of sin. God offers the possibility to “turn back” to him in times of distress (1 Kgs 8:33; 2 Chr 30:9; Job 22:23). The prophets call the people to turn back, i.e., repent of sinful ways and reorient toward God (e.g., Jer 3:12; Hos 14:1). God and his prophets fiercely condemn failure to turn back to God (e.g., Jer 5:3; Amos 4:6–11). Conversely, the ot writers portray those who do turn back to God favorably (Isa 10:21; 2 Chr 15:4). When people turn away from sins, they often also confess their sins (e.g., 1 Kgs 8:35). When people repent, God often provides restoration, redemption, or cleansing (Isa 1:27; Jer 4:1).” [1]

In summary the use of this Hebrew word denotes our spiritual direction. It should be noted that there are only two directions a person can ever go spiritually. Throughout our lives we are either running to God (repentance) or running from Him (apostasy). Or maybe more precisely we are turning away from sinfulness (repentance) or turning away from holiness (apostasy). Again, our lives are a continuous battle for direction. Are we being moved from unrighteousness to righteousness, or are we being moved from righteousness to unrighteousness?

נָחַם (nāḥam). vb. to regret, feel remorse, relent, comfort, console. Referring either to a strong feeling that motivates a change of action, intent, or attitude or to the attempt to change feelings through comfort or consolation.

This word generally seems to indicate that attitudes or circumstances have influenced one to change from a previously decided course of action (e.g., Exod 13:17; Judg 21:6). The verb can also be used to express regret or remorse after sinful behavior or wrongdoing (e.g., Job 42:6; Jer 31:18–19) or the lack of remorse over sin (Jer 8:6). More common than the use of this verb for human repentance is its use to express God’s choice to graciously relent from judgment (Jer 18:8; 26:3) or to indicate a change in what was previously revealed of the divine plan (1 Sam 15:10, 25–29; Gen 6:6). [1]

This Hebrew word takes us a bit deeper into repentance by dealing with the conscience. I often say that an indication of true biblical repentance is the regret or remorse one feels over their sin because they sinned against a holy God. If the motivation behind our guilt, regret, and remorse is not the fact that God is holy and we sinned against him, then we are not truly, biblically repentant.

The ot concept of repentance is expressed with two key Hebrew terms: שׁוּב (šûb) and נָחַם (nāḥam). The Hebrew word šûb (“turn”) expresses repentance as turning away from the wrong path, i.e., sinful behavior, and turning back toward God (Hos 3:5). Thus, repentance is an act of reorientation. The term nāḥam (“console”) can have a number of different meanings, including feeling sorrow or remorse; it can thus express the aspect of repentance that involves contrition for wrongdoing (Job 42:6).” [1]

In summary, within the context of the Scriptures, the word repentance is always in reference to turning away from our sinful life (wrong path) and turning to God. This concept is clearly seen in Old Testament passages such as Ezekiel 14:6, 18:30.

In the NEW Testament

μετανοέω (metanoeō). vb. to repent, change one’s mind. In the nt, generally refers not simply to changing one’s mind but to turning back to God.

The original meaning of metanoeō is “to change one’s mind.” In pre-Christian Greek, however, it could also refer to regretting a particular act. The Septuagint does not use it to translate שׁוּב (šûb), but other works show that in Jewish thought it took on the meaning of comprehensively turning back to God (Sir 48:15; Testament of Zebulun, 9:7), and this is the primary meaning in the nt (Acts 3:19; 26:20). Both John the Baptist (e.g., Mark 1:15) and Jesus (e.g., Matt 4:17) call people to repent (metanoeō); the apostles similarly preached that people should “repent (metanoeō) and turn (ἐπιστρέφω, epistrephō) to God” (Acts 26:20). [1]

Many theologies attempt to manipulate this word μετανοέω, by saying that the definition “change one’s mind” merely means to change one’s mind about God rather than changing ones mind to God. The problem is if we interpret biblical passages this way, it can lead to a de-emphasis  of the doctrine of repentance. With that definition, one has no obligation to turn towards God spiritually but only intellectually. The spiritual command of dying to ourselves and turning our heart’s, soul’s, and mind’s to and towards God are emptied out of the commandment to repent.

μετάνοια (metanoia). n. fem. change of mind, repentance. In the nt, primarily refers to a comprehensive change of one’s orientation toward following God.

This is the noun equivalent of the verb μετανοέω (metanoeō) “to change one’s mind.” Like the verb, it originally referred to a change of mind, but by the time of the nt it had taken on a meaning in Jewish thought of a return to God. In the Gospels, John the Baptist offers a “baptism of repentance (metanoia) for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). Jesus similarly calls people to repentance (Luke 5:32) and tells his disciples to proclaim “repentance (metanoia) and forgiveness of sins” to all nations (Luke 24:47). [1]

The same theologies that attempt to distort μετανοέω also attempt to distort μετάνοιαThe difference between the words? μετανοέω is a verb and denotes a turning back to God, while more generally μετάνοια, refers to turning to God maybe for the first time.

If we go with the distorted view that some theologies hold, let’s for a second recall how Jesus began his earthly ministry. Imagine him coming to people living in sin and saying, “Change your mind about God! You don’t need to stop or change any behaviors, just change what you think of him, that will get you into the kingdom. Intellectually if you change your mind about God you will go to heaven.” How ridiculous! This would run in stark opposition to the rest of his message. Not to mention, even demons hold the same view of God as we believers do as James mention. If repentance is only intellectual, then even demons will reign and rule with us in heaven. But this is not true. Why? Because it is not only intellectual, it is spiritual. It is a spiritual action that manifests itself in the life of the regenerate.

The following greek words denote more concrete physical and intellectual actions rather than spiritual, yet some are used in the same spiritual context of μετανοέω and μετάνοια.

ἐπιστρέφω (epistrephō). vb. to turn, change direction, return, to repent, be converted. Describes an act of turning, turning around, back, changing direction, returning, and, thus, repenting or being converted.

This word corresponds closely in meaning to the Hebrew term שׁוּב (šûb) “to turn, return,” and is often used to translate it in the Septuagint. In the nt, it most often refers to a physical motion, change of direction, or return to a place or person. However, it also sometimes refers to a turning back to God, i.e., repentance. Matthew 13:15, a citation of Isa 6:10, uses “turn” to translate Isaiah’s use of šûb in the sense of “return to God.” Luke 1:16–17 describes John the Baptist as one who will “turn” people back to God. In addition, the apostles’ exhortation to “repent (μετανοέω, metanoeō) and turn (epistrephō)” (Acts 3:19; 26:20) echoes the ot prophetic calls. Like šûb, epistrephō can be used not only to talk about repentance as turning toward God but also to talk about apostasy as turning away from God (e.g., Gal 4:9; 1 Thess 1:9, etc.). The equivalent noun, ἐπιστροφή (epistrophē; “a turning, reorientation, conversion”) occurs once in Acts 15:3 to refer to the “conversion (epistrophē) of the Gentiles.”

μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai). vb. to regret, be sorry, change one’s mind. Refers to regretting or feeling sorry for one’s actions and deciding to change behavior.

This verb can indicate changing one’s mind (Matt 21:29, 32), but can also signify feeling regret (2 Cor 7:8), and, thus, repenting of wrongdoing (Matt 27:3). [1]

After reviewing the length of this article I have decided that I will speak to the issue of repentance being a “work that earns salvation” in next weeks post.

Continue in Alrighteousness!


[1] DiFransico, L. (2014). Repentance. D. Mangum, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, & R. Hurst (Eds.), Lexham Theological Wordbook. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

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